Earlier this week, the World Trade Organization rejected a US appeal of the WTO’s decision that country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) on beef and pork improperly discriminates against meat imports and to the benefit of domestic meat products. The WTO’s May 18 decision constitutes the WTO’s final ruling as the US has exhausted the trade body’s appeal process. The WTO case was adjudicated via a dispute resolution system that enables member nation-states to sue one another over domestic policies that are believed to inhibit trade. Canada and Mexico were the main Complainants in the case. The WTO will now determine the level of retaliatory tariffs that Canada and Mexico may impose on the US for its illegal labeling practices. The US will be forced to revise or repeal the COOL provisions in order to avoid such sanctions.

Congress passed COOL as a consumer protection and safety measure as part of the 2008 Farm Bill and implemented by the USDA through its 2009 Final Rule on Mandatory Country of Origin Labelling. The law requires that meat labels in supermarkets indicate the country in which livestock was born, raised, and slaughtered. In order to be labeled as having a US origin, the product must be derived from an animal that was exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States. Canada’s main concern underlying the dispute is that the COOL restrictions exclude such a designation on beef or pork derived from cattle or hogs that are exported to the United States for feed or immediate slaughter.

The COOL provisions were supported by the American public, and consumers and consumer-advocacy groups are now concerned that this ruling interferes with their right to know where their food originates. On the other hand, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, along with the North American Meat Institute President and CEO, have called for a repeal of COOL. Others are urging WTO members to collaborate in order to find a solution that allows a meaningful COOL requirement without restricting trade. This WTO ruling is not likely to be the last that we hear about the COOL requirements, nor will it mark the end of the free trade vs. food safety debate.